The remarkable tale of Bathurst’s unique Grassland Dragon
In 1966 two Bathurst naturalists sent some lizards to the Australian Museum. Fifty years later it’s been recognized as a distinct species, and the hunt is on to find it again.
A new study has uncovered what was once thought to be one species of Grassland Earless Dragon (Tympanocryptis pinguicolla) is actually four distinct species. The study has raised concerns about the conservation of each of the new species, especially the Melbourne and Bathurst species which haven’t been seen for decades! In fact, it is only through serendipity that the Bathurst species was recognized at all, and the hunt is now on to find it again!
Where it was previously thought one species had a broad but fragmented distribution it’s now known each of the newly recognized species occupies a narrow remnant grassland. The Canberra Earless Dragon (T. lineata) is restricted to the ACT and Queanbeyan, Cooma Earless Dragon (T. osbornei) to the Monaro Plain, Victorian Earless Dragon (T. pinguicolla) to Melbourne where it has not been sighted since 1969, and the most narrowly distributed Bathurst Earless Dragon (T. mccartneyi) from just three lizards in the town of Bathurst.
Clearly there are grave concerns for the Victorian Earless Dragon which has gone unseen for close to 50 years, despite recent efforts of Zoos Victoria to re-detect the species. However, the story of the Bathurst Earless Dragon is nearly as worrying, filled with mystery and a fantastic example of the contribution of dedicated local naturalists to our understanding of Australia’s unique fauna.
In 1966 Ian McArtney and Gavin Waters, locals of the Bathurst region were already keen naturalists with a passion for reptiles. When they found Grassland Earless Dragons on the then outskirts of Bathurst they sent two lizards to the Australian Museum Curator at the time, Dr. Harold Cogger. These lizards, stored in the museum, were intended to serve as a record in perpetuity of the species occurrence at Bathurst, unrealized at the time they would become even more important than that.
In the early 1990s Grassland Earless Dragons became a conservation focus when Dr. Will Osborne re-discovered the dragon living in Canberra where it had not been seen for 30 years. With a couple of Canberra Earless Dragons, Will travelled to Bathurst, and with Gavin’s assistance took a side by side photo of the Canberra and Bathurst lizards in a bucket.
In 2018, when Jane Melville of Museum Victoria was asked to review the taxonomic status of the Grassland Earless Dragons, attention was turned to the two 1966 Bathurst lizards at the Australian Museum. Thorough analysis of their scale shape and CT scans of their skeleton indicated a good chance they were a different species than those further south, but a vital piece of the puzzle was missing, DNA. The Australian Museum Herpetology team sprang into action trying to uncover more information about the Bathurst dragons. In a turn of serendipity, when the team contacted Gavin Waters, it was revealed that not long after Will Osborne had visited him in the 1990s, he had found a Bathurst Earless Dragon dead on the road and placed it in his freezer. It was still there, and maybe DNA could be recovered from it!
A joint trip was organized with Australian Museum’s Herpetology team, as well as Dr. Jane Melville and Will Osborne, travelling to Bathurst to sample DNA from the frozen lizard. The trip was a success with the DNA providing the last piece of the puzzle to confidently assign the lizard as its own unique species, named after discoverer Ian McArtney. But it was also worrying, that dead lizard on the road in the early 1990s was the last Gavin had seen despite some searches since.
The story is unfinished! Thanks entirely to two dedicated local naturalists in 1966 we know the Bathurst Earless Dragon existed. Now the search begins to determine if it still occurs in the Bathurst area, and if so in what numbers. In this effort to re-find the Bathurst Earless Dragon there is no doubt that Bathurst locals with a love for the environment will play a vital role. If you think you have seen a Bathurst Earless Dragon, or know an area that might be suitable to search for them the Australian Museum Herpetology team is eager to hear from you!
Stephen Mahony, Herpetological Technical Officer